Summary from the 5th Meet the Press held on April 26, 2019

Question: Government’s plans to broaden tax base?  

A cautious analysis of the current taxation policy and the practicing system in our country shows that our tax base is eroding. The tax exemption system is complex. More importantly, our tax base is narrow and complicated.

This analysis, and an attempt to generate Nu.10 billion in revenue through tax compels the government to pursue implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST). GST would not only broaden the tax base and reduce tax leakage but also avoid double taxation, reducing burden on the consumers.

The Ministry of Finance is currently drafting legislation for submission to the Cabinet and seeks to roll out the tax by middle of 2020.

The government would like to assure that GST in no way means imposing additional tax to our people. This is an effort to streamline the system and add supplementary revenue flow in the government exchequer.

Question: Could government’s move to recruit specialists and sub-specialist from Bangladesh at a higher pay scale demoralise Bhutanese specialists? 

Bhutan has been hiring specialists from Myanmar, Cuba and other countries to make up for the shortage in the country. Similarly, the government, during recent official visit of honourable Lyonchhen, requested People’s Republic of Bangladesh to assist in sending some of their specialists and sub-specialists to Bhutan.

The proposed pay of about USD 5,000 had some voicing concern that it would demoralise our own professionals in the country and the same amount invested in-country could churn out efficiency in our professionals. Firstly, the request was a short-term measure to provide efficient health services in the country. The specialist and sub-specialists would be selected and paid based on their expertise, experience and sub-specialty.

On the figure itself, a comparison of payment models in Bangladesh and other countries in the region would show that the proposed figure that is close to USD 5,000 is far lesser than what they earned.

The government is of the opinion that such remarks would come from random individuals but certainly not from the doctors or specialists themselves. It would be an insult to them. Our doctors are overtasked and their payment is standardised within available resources.

The Bhutanese doctors come from a system where education was provided free by the nation, receiving welfare from the state along the path and all the way up to the career. As a Bhutanese, they are aware of the shared role in serving our nation. So such demands cannot come from them.

Question: Loss of lives at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and the claims that it is due to negligence and weak infection control measures. 

The government understands that no death is comprehensible. Every life lost should be made countable. Over the last five years, NICU saw over 500 admissions, of which there were about 90 deaths of babies.

While the performance of the neonatology department determines the service efficiency of a hospital, it is unfair to entirely accuse them of the loss of lives of children. Almost 48 percent of the total deaths in the NICU pre-term deaths. About 80-90 percent are deaths related to complications in the C-Section and referral cases.

On April 25, the Prime Minister, health minister and the foreign minister met officials from the Ministry of Health, and relevant doctors and specialists in JDWNRH as a part of the ‘AM with PM: A dialogue with the Prime Minister’ session to work on strengthening services in NICU.

The session saw discussions on placing adequate manpower in the NICU, procuring essential medicines and equipment, and further reinforcing infection control mechanisms in the unit. The required nurse to patient ratio is 1:1 but this is not the case for now because we cannot afford as many human resource.

The nurses in NICU are not specialised in neonatal care but they are trying their best. As if dealing with loss of precious lives is not enough, media reports and pressure people put on them have forced our nurses into depression, while some had to take medications and others sought transfer to different departments. Media reports that are anything but positive have cost a lot in terms of health workers’ spirit and enthusiasm.

However, government is not complacent and would ensure all possible means to minimise deaths in NICU. To begin with, an independent team will be formed to examine problems and trace measures to improve NICU.

Question: Updates on Kholongchhu Project and the status of Dorjilum and Sunkosh projects.

Kholongchhu project, which is a joint venture project, was around for last three years in principle but the core construction works has not started. A meeting between the governments of Bhutan and India is scheduled in the first week of May, mainly to take forward the concessional agreement.

The meeting will also discuss way forward and initiate construction of the civil components. As a JV model, the first of a kind, the governments are carrying out thorough discussions to avoid complications and smooth process.

On Dorjilum, the progress has been slow as it is a tri-lateral venture between Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. The involvement of three different countries means added procedures. So Dorjilum is still in the discussion phase.

On Sunkosh, the progress has been steady. The government is optimistic that the project will start sooner than expected. Consultations have begun, our people are excited and we hope that by the end of 2019, an agreement for Sunkosh will be signed.

Question: Trade deficit of 30 billion – What is the government’s plan to breach the gap 30 billion trade deficit gap.

Bhutan currently has a trade deficit of about Nu 30 billion. The government has initiated plans to narrow the trade deficit. Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa also pledged towards inclusive economy and economic diversification.

The government plans to promote export and work towards import substitution. The government will also fast- the development of the four industrial parks. Motanga industrial park in Samdrupjongkhar and Jigmeling industrial park in Gelephu will cater to high-end industries with FDIs for export promotion.

The government is revisiting the FDI policy to improve investment climate in the country and encourage private sector involvement. The government also has a flagship on Cottage and Small Industries, which would serve largely towards economic diversification.

The Private Sector Development board is also working to provide recommendations to the government on active private sector engagements. The government’s plan to enhance our agriculture sector by means of cooperative commercial farming will reduce import of edibles in the country.

The completion of the hydro power projects and trade mechanisms between Bangladesh and Bhutan after the Prime Minister’s successful Official visit to Bangladesh will also reduce the trade deficit.

Question: The status of the Pay Commission’s report. Within what the pay commission recommended, will it narrow the gap?

The government is reviewing the report, which has also been shared in the public domain for feedback and comments.

If the Pay Commission’s report is viewed through a different lens, it has initiated different ways to narrow the gap, the inclusion of pension and gratuity schemes for ESP and GSP personnel for instance.

The government will view the Pay Commission’s report and its recommendations with utmost consideration. Pay Commission is a constitutional entity and undermining its recommendations entirely or disregarding its autonomy would set a precedent where governments in future would manipulate the report in their favours. This government will not allow that.

However, within the stipulated budget, government will review the report to come out with revisions that our best suited for our public servant.

The government also seeks inputs from the Opposition and other stakeholders to improve the pay commission’s report, as it pursues inclusive governance.

 

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